Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Vince Moua talks Asian and LGBTQIA+ representation on the show
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
As a young and poor Hmong American, Vince Moua needed an escape — an escape that not only temporarily transported him out of his poverty-riddled reality, but one that also gave promise to much bigger dreams in a much bigger world. And that dream was Survivor.
"As a child of poor Hmong refugee immigrants who had no access to paid cable programs and did not have disposable incomes to fund family vacations," says Vince, "Survivor provided me with 45 minutes of worlds, spaces, and communities outside of my small Central Valley town. Each new episode showed me that there were opportunities beyond the poverty-stricken walls of Merced, where only 13.1 percent of persons aged 25 or over had a bachelor's and/or higher degree."
Vince's dream became a reality when he made the cast of Survivor: Island of the Idols in 2019, but it was a dream not initially supported by his mother and father. "LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility are entirely new movements/concepts in the Hmong community, so my parents were initially completely against me going on Survivor," Vince says. "They were not ready for me to come out on a national platform and were worried about losing face in our community. But they eventually got on board, and the last thing my Dad told me was, 'Yog hais tias koj yuav mus shib tw rau Survivor ces koj yuav tsum yeej nawb,' which translates to, 'If you're going to go out there on Survivor, you better do your best to win the whole thing!'"
While Vince's Survivor journey did not exactly go as he hoped in terms of the game — he was voted out third, on day 8 — his main mission for playing was a rousing success and speaks to the power of the platform Survivor can provide. "I was able to speak about being Hmong American, low-income, and queer, which meant the world to me!" Vince says. "Representation is something that has and continues to be extremely elusive for the AAPI community and, when provided, usually only adds to harmful stereotypes instead of creating more conversations about our unique narratives. The continued erasure, simplification, and homogenization of our stories, for example, has in part led to the increase of xenophobic ideology and anti-Asian racism that have been rising in America since the outbreak and weaponization of the COVID-19 virus."
With CBS recently announcing new measures to increase diversity on all of its reality shows, promising that casts will now be at least 50 percent Black, Indigenous, and people of color, fans like Vince once was growing up will now be able to watch more players who look and sound like them, with stories that may mirror their own. It's a role that Vince relished, and still gives thanks for: "I will always be grateful to CBS and Survivor for giving me the opportunity to represent so many stories and narratives that are often made invisible in mainstream American media and/or history."
In his Quarantine Questionnaire, Vince explains how meaningful his Survivor journey has been for him and the Hmong and LGBTQIA+ communities. He also gets into all the game mechanics of season 39, taking us behind the scenes to spill on stuff we never saw, while also getting into why he feels somewhat ostracized by the rest of his Island of the Idols cast. It's a must-read that sheds a lot of perspective on aspects both in and out of the game.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
VINCE MOUA: Things have been an absolute whirlwind since the game! I landed and went back to work the next day. I do not recommend that for any future players, because you might break down in a team meeting where the check-in question is "What kind of weather represents your state of being right now and why?" and the first images that pop up in your head are those half-storm, half-rainbow skies of Fiji.
I've since created institutional changes to admission policies at Stanford that are more inclusive of underrepresented Asian American and/or Pacific Islander students. I spoke about educational disparities in the Hmong community as a highlighted panelist for a national conference on college admission processes in the United States.
I paid off my car (thank you, CBS and Survivor, for them checks). I was asked to be the godfather to my host sister's daughter, which means I have a godson and goddaughter in Tokyo now! They are too cute, and I hope they become Survivor fans! I started sewing masks at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak and am now obsessed. Most recently, I just got a promotion and am now an assistant director of admission! So lots have happened since being on the show, and I think continuing to live your life after an experience like Survivor truly epitomizes the kind of players who make great castaways!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
There are three!
(1) The first, which I'm sure you probably guessed, was turning Rob and Sandra's mission impossible into #missionvincepossible! Tom Cruise probably would not have been able to do what Little Ole Vince did! The whole IOI experience was WILD. You're just kinda thrown on the island, told to walk, then these two HUGE busts randomly start to enter your field of vision, and then out pops ROB AND SANDRA who sit you down and hit you with a challenge. The level of shook when I found out my challenge was to steal fire from Vokai?! I can't even begin to tell you how many scenarios were running through my mind.
A lot of folks have said my challenge was probably easy, but imagine being tasked with stealing fire without being noticed (not as much as a head rising to look around) while knowing nothing about Vokai's camp and being dropped off in the pitch-black darkness of their jungle during a storm… It was literally a scene from a spy action movie, and not for the faint of heart. I also had to revise my plans multiple times to fit changing storm and camp conditions, which resulted in several producers praising my quick wit. I still laugh so much when I watch the scene because the slipping, sliding, and walking into bushes were all so hilarious.
(2) Going spearfishing in open water! Swimming is a very privileged sport and activity, which many kiddos from under-resourced communities are not privy to. We literally had one public pool in Merced, and it closed down when I was in middle school. Luckily, I was able to take swimming classes at Stanford before heading out. But even then, I only had like 24 hours of practice under my belt before the game started. So when Elaine asked me to go spearfishing with her, with no flippers or goggles, I was shaking in my tight little red boxer briefs, a.k.a. super-scared. However, she was like, "When you's gonna get another f---in' chance like this? Come on!" So I did and it was wonderful!
(3) Not voting/gunning for any women before my untimely elimination. A big reason why I went out to play the game was to show that, as men, we must wake up every day ready to challenge and dismantle the patriarchy that dictates the lives, bodies, and stories of our mothers, sisters, aunties, cousins, and friends who identify as female and/or as a woman (cis and trans). I've received a bunch of hate from people bashing my alliance with the women on my tribe, and it's been frustrating to have folks not understand that men must also be involved in the process of fighting for gender justice.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I think most people would expect me to say not playing my immunity idol (laaaarwd, we know I got so much flack for it), but I would say it was thinking too much about my explanation regarding IOI. I was really encouraged by Rob and Sandra to lie about winning the challenge and to keep my idol a secret, which, from an old-school Survivor perspective, makes sense. However, in modern Survivor, you have to be more strategic in showcasing loyalty or trust because everyone and they moms are primed to vote anyone out to "make big moves" or "build their resumes."
I knew that the tribe would have doubts regardless of what I told them, so one of my initial plans was to lie publicly to the whole tribe that I had lost the challenge and then go to my core alliance (Missy, Elaine, and Elizabeth) to tell them I had actually won the challenge and that my prize was a map to Vokai's camp, which would work as a clue to an immunity idol once we swapped or merged.
However, in planning for a potential encounter with someone from Vokai during my challenge, I found a piece of washed-up charcoal before heading into the darkness of their jungle and had already drawn an X on the map to act as a fake location to a hidden immunity idol should an explanation be needed to justify why I was randomly on Vokai's island. As was the case, I was afraid that the X would cause more questions.
So in the end, I went with creating a false story of what happened, lying to the whole tribe, and doubling back to tell my core alliance that I had lost my vote in addition to sleeping in the storm without shelter (I was banking on Elizabeth to confirm that this was true, as she should have been given similar conditions if she lost her challenge). Missy came to me and said other people were telling her that I had told them a different story, which was not true, and I should have realized it was likely the men who were trying to get me out.
Elizabeth had suggested that I have a chat with all of the women as a group prior to Tribal. However, I was playing the role of reconnaissance and — after having already talked with Elaine, Missy, Elizabeth, Karishma, and Chelsea individually — I didn't want to spook the guys by going down to the beach where the women were chatting. I have since heard that Karishma and Missy were trying to convince others to keep me, Chelsea was conflicted on which way to go, Elaine would not vote Tom, and Elizabeth was willing to go any way. Unfortunately, their discussions were stopped before a change could be made. I think I could have convinced them to go with one of the alpha guys had I just told them that I had won the map and that it was for our alliance of six.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Definitely me pointing out a set of stairs built on the side of our island's mountain and then rallying the tribe to climb to the other side. This was really the turning point in my strategic game because I knew I was at the bottom and needed a way of generating conversations away from me. I had to ask our producer if we could explore what was on the other side of the mountain, and while walking up to said producer I noticed that there was already a set of footprints on the beach leading to the stairs. I am an extremely visual person who pays attention to their surroundings and knew immediately that those footprints belonged to Aaron, as I had seen the marks left by his shoes at camp before.
I then realized that he had been idol hunting earlier that morning. After we climbed over, Aaron and Ronnie went off on their own, I asked Missy to follow them, she couldn't because they had already disappeared, and then she left with Chelsea back to our camp after deciding that nothing was hidden in the cove because there were bits of rubbish everywhere. With their departure, Elaine and I decided to wait for Aaron and Ronnie because they were gone for a long time. When they came back, they were all kinds of weird.
As the four of us were trekking back home, Elaine overheard Ronnie saying, "It's moments like these that we will remember," while wiping away tears. At that point, it was day 2, we were still unaware of what the theme of IOI was, but I thought it meant immunity idols were hidden on another island that we had to find, which seemed to suggest that we had discovered the island where idols were. Due to this, I told Elaine about my observations of footprints, thoughts about idols, and we went forward spreading the word that Aaron and Ronnie could not be trusted and that they may have found an idol.
I knew people would be hesitant voting for Aaron, as he was seen as a physical asset, so I needed to get folks talking about Ronnie. I started to refer to Ronnie as Aaron's annoying little brother shield, which resonated with others because Ronnie wasn't the most socially savvy (as was shown on episode 1) and he was always following Aaron around. The game moves really quickly, and people started to see that Aaron was able to hide behind Ronnie's more pressing image, which led to discussions about breaking the duo up. While doing this, I also let Tom push the idea because I didn't want to be targeted as the ringleader. The combined efforts of Elaine, Tom, and myself eventually led to Ronnie's blindside. He was actually in such a state of shock that he forgot his torch and Jeff had to tell him multiple times to get it.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I am really happy with my edit! I could not have asked for more given the constraints producers are faced with when it comes to showcasing story lines that make sense to the audience, who only get about 45 minutes of each 48-72 hours we experience as players. Two of the main reasons I auditioned for Survivor were: (1) to bring awareness to the diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and (2) to combat undermatching (students self-selecting out of applying to top universities because they've been conditioned to believe that they would never be accepted) in underrepresented minority communities.
I was able to speak about being Hmong American, low-income, and queer, which meant the world to me! Representation is something that has and continues to be extremely elusive for the AAPI community and, when provided, usually only adds to harmful stereotypes instead of creating more conversations about our unique narratives. The continued erasure, simplification, and homogenization of our stories, for example, has in part led to the increase of xenophobic ideology and anti-Asian racism that have been rising in America since the outbreak and weaponization of the COVID-19 virus.
Asian Americans have been told to go back to our countries because we brought the "Chinese virus," even though this is our country; we are American, and our ethnicities, Chinese or otherwise, are not diseases. Our elders are being attacked because many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen see us as homogenized perpetual foreigners, propagandized versions of the Yellow Peril, without recognizing that America is the very reason why so many of our families had to flee their homelands.
How does one return to their motherland when the tongue they speak is more foreigner than family to people ravaged by 2 million tons of bombs, 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, and continued ethnic genocide? How does one return to a place only known to them through stories laced with bullets, death, famine, and persecution? How do I see a home outside of America when I know Laos as a thick jungle filled with muffled wailings of mothers whose babies were lost to overdoses of opium meant only to put them to sleep so that their cries would not alert Communist soldiers as their families tried escaping ethnic persecution after America's withdrawal from Saigon? How do I feel a sense of home with Thailand when I know it as the swift currents and strong undertows of the Mekong River, a home to dragons whose bellies grew big with Hmong men, women, and children who risked their lives crossing its waters for the promise of safety in refugee camps despite not knowing how to swim?
Our communities have had to rebuild their lives in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America, yet are told that we are the monolithic "model minority," a racial wedge politically popularized in the 1950s and 1960s meant to increase tensions between Asian Americans and other minority communities. Our histories have not been taught in schools, the lives of young Hmong and Mien men and women recruited to fight for America in the Secret War have not been thoroughly recognized, but we are expected to assimilate our minds into a society that still does not see our bodies as worthy of citizenship. As is the case, I will always be grateful to CBS and Survivor for giving me the opportunity to represent so many stories and narratives that are often made invisible in mainstream American media and/or history.
With all of this being said, if I could add anything to my edit, it would be to include the strategizing that I did with the Lairo women. I totally understand why it was not included as the early theme on Lairo was the "all-women alliance." But I do think the omission of my work with the women made it seem like I didn't have a strategic game. From aligning myself with Missy because of our desires to work with women of color, to constantly checking on Karishma to make her feel like she belonged in the women + Vince alliance, to keeping Elaine in the loop with blindside plans from the guys, to agreeing to keep IOI a secret between Elizabeth and myself, to emphasizing the need of voting out an alpha guy instead of Karishma with Chelsea, I was really hustling to stay in the game with the ladies even though the odds were stacked against me.
This was also made more apparent when Missy told me after the game that she had been telling Aaron I had two idols (one found at our camp and one won from IOI) with the hopes of scaring him away from voting for me. So yeeeeaaaaah, it was disappointing that the audience didn't see my strategic game because I was playing really hard from the bottom… to the point where people were worried I had secured multiple idols. However, producers gotta do what they gotta do to create a story line that aligns with the winner's edit. So while my strategies didn't fit into season 39, I just continue to hope that Survivor saw enough gameplay in me to invite me back!
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
I'm not gonna lie, it was HARD. I thought that I had gotten over everything after the first few days at Ponderosa. I also pumped myself up to have a great time in Australia (it was my first time visiting) by distancing myself from conversations about the game. However, upon returning home, I found myself slipping back into periods where I would endlessly recalculate my moves, reassess my alliances, guess who backstabbed me, and think of what-ifs.
Beyond the game being on repeat in my brain, I think the hardest part of adjusting had to do with talking to family and friends about the experience. I was really afraid of what those closest to me would say because I was voted out pre-merge.
For a bit of context, LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility are entirely new movements/concepts in the Hmong community, so my parents were initially completely against me going on Survivor. They were not ready for me to come out on a national platform and were worried about losing face in our community. But they eventually got on board and the last thing my Dad told me was, "Yog hais tias koj yuav mus shib tw rau Survivor ces koj yuav tsum yeej nawb," which translates to, "If you're going to go out there on Survivor, you better do your best to win the whole thing!"
So you can imagine how I felt coming back as 17th runner-up, 18th alternate. Despite returning with beautiful sun-kissed, chestnut-brown, silky-smooth skin and a reaffirmed confidence in my queer identity, I was consumed with this fear that I had disappointed my family. While I had left telling myself that I would be prepared for any potential backlash, I found myself afraid that coming out so publicly would actually ruin my family's name and social standing in our clan. Funny enough, though, my extended family members were all super-proud and supportive when they found out, which was relieving to say the least! I was happy my parents were able to see that they didn't have to worry about the thoughts of others and that having a queer son did not automatically bar them from still being seen as respectable elders.
As for friends, several of my friends/colleagues (Judy, Marisha, Olivia, and Sharen) took up writing congratulatory letters to my admits so that I could leave without worrying about work. I was a bit embarrassed to tell them that I didn't get far enough to pay them back for their help. But they didn't care, took me out to dinner, and told me how they checked the weather in Fiji every single day! It was so cute to hear that they would get super-worried when storms were in the forecast. In all realness, though, the undying fandom from my friends really helped me get past the initial pangs of knowing that my time on Survivor, for the time being, had come to a close. "You're an inspiration, Vince! You said you wanted to go on Survivor and you manifested it! YOU DID THAT! PERIOD!"
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
No. As a child of poor Hmong refugee immigrants, who had no access to paid cable programs and did not have disposable incomes to fund family vacations, Survivor provided me with 45 minutes of worlds, spaces, and communities outside of my small Central Valley town. Each new episode showed me that there were opportunities beyond the poverty stricken walls of Merced where only 13.1 percent of persons aged 25 or over had a bachelor's and/or higher degree.
Survivor gave 10-year-old Vince, who had never traveled beyond Sacramento, Calif., a chance to dream. It showed me that, despite being faced with odds that did not favor individuals from my background, I could create my own story of success and resilience with the support of my allies.
Survivor provided 18-year-old Vince, who was navigating college life as best as he could in multiple tribes around him, with refuge from the academic struggles, financial insecurities, and self-doubts that he faced as one of 13 Hmong students at Stanford.
Survivor taught 22-year-old Vince, who was living and teaching in the secluded rural confines of South Korea, the meaning behind self-love and self-acceptance.
Survivor gave 25-year-old Vince the confidence to embrace his identity as a gay-cisgender-Southeast Asian man by coming out to his sisters and telling that that he had a wonderful partner.
Survivor gave 27-year-old Vince an opportunity to live out a childhood dream he never thought would come true.
Survivor was and continues to be more than a simple show for me, and I will never regret that I decided to create my own destiny by going on the "adventure of a lifetime."
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
This is a hard question to answer, and one that I've spent a lot of time pondering over. In the end, I decided I should not sugarcoat things. I chatted with a lot of people when we first got back to the U.S. of A. Sweet Noura also hosted a showing of my vote-off episode with me while I was traveling in D.C./Maryland for work! But if I were to be completely honest, I am in very limited communications with everyone from my season.
I was extremely saddened and upset to hear of what transpired after the pre-mergers left for Australia and spoke up quite a bit about supporting victims of sexual harassment, assault, and/or invasion of personal space while holding perpetrators accountable… and that didn't sit well with castmates who believed that perpetrators have "room for growth." Although I am still civil with everyone, my strong stance created an uncomfortable air because I was the only person who fought against a statement of solidarity supporting the perpetrator from being read at our finale (pushed by some castmates, not CBS or Survivor).
While I wish my time out on the island resulted in lifelong friends, I am fine with sticking strong to my morals and standing up for what is right. I've listened well to the advice of Madea and have come to understand that some folks are seasonal people and you have to be okay knowing that they were only meant to be in your life for a short period of time. With all of this being said, I am hopeful and optimistic that others will not have to be as vocal in the future and that Survivor and CBS will continue working hard to ensure that the onus of a contestant's safety does not fall on to players as they are already trying to navigate extremely confusing and precarious situations.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Absolutely! I'm a super-fan who has watched every American season two to three times over! I've also watched all seasons of Australian Survivor, Survivor New Zealand, and Survivor South Africa!
My ultimate favorite season would have to be Survivor: China! Beyond the gameplay being complex and incredibly nuanced, Survivor: China was also beautifully produced. I think one of the aspects of old-school Survivor that catapulted it into its popularity with the masses was its effort to showcase and appreciate the land, culture, and people of each filming location.
For me, Survivor represented an opportunity to travel the world by living vicariously through players who were experiencing things I thought I would never be able to. It was really powerful, as an Asian American kiddo, to see how playing in China affected Peih-Gee. That scene where she talks about her Chinese American identity will stay with me forever! I also really enjoyed the women on Survivor: China! They were super-strong and no-nonsense kind of folks! I think those are the kind of players I do best with. It would also be totally remiss of me not to mention their AH-MAY-ZING rewards! Eating dinner on the Great Wall of China?! A visit to AND overnight stay at THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE?! Fiji is wonderful buuuut cain't nothing beat the rewards from old-school Survivor!
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
The one and only "gangsta in an Oprah suit," Cirie Fields! I don't think a long explanation is needed here. She's an amazingly skilled strategist who remained loyal to her alliances and is incredibly likable. AND the scene of her tackling Parvati and Danielle in the first challenge of Heroes vs Villains? One of the most glorious moments on Survivor, haha!
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Only one aspect of the game?! I'mma just go ahead and talk about two changes I'd like to see.
(1) I am going to admit that my first answer is completely biased. But I think it would be so, so awesome if more pre-mergers were asked to return! A season with a cast of all first-time pre-mergers?! Something like:
*cue conch horn* Survivor: Rise of the Fallen
*cue Ancient Voices chant* Survivor: A New Beginning
*cue Jeff: "39 days, 20 people, 1 Survivor!"* Survivor: Revenge of Yesterday.
Sounds promising, right?! It's been my experience that pre-mergers are often labeled as "the worst players" of their seasons or are often forgotten because they simply didn't get much airtime. However, as we all know, Survivor is a game where luck plays a large part in determining how far people go. Many pre-mergers were just faced with unlucky situations, which resulted in them getting eliminated without truly showcasing all of their abilities. I think there are a lot of great pre-merge players ready to prove they were cut too early in their seasons.
(2) It would be awesome to broadcast more of what daily camp life is like. I really miss the old days when they showed the inner struggles and growth that people went through while trying to survive the elements. It's chaotic out there with gameplay, yes. But there are also just super-human moments. Like when we came together to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets from our Tribe flag, or when Missy and I had a really touching heart-to-heart where we shared our stories of growing up as low-income queer people of color while I was teaching her how to descale and gut fish by the shoreline as the sun was setting. I think I would just like the audience to get more of those moments because I cherished those when I was a kid.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Yes! I went out there with a mission to represent my communities and to show kiddos that, "If freakin' Vince could do it, you can do it!" but my second time around will be centered on me! I'd also love to be in an official opening montage!
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